How Toyota finally put the horse before the cart in what was, in one sense at least, a bit of a Triumph.
Despite promises of Waku-Doki and its work with EVs, Toyota remains in many ways a cautious company. Once I might have said this with a tinge of contempt, but certainly not now. The motor industry is a dangerous business, yet Toyota has survived and prospered because, generally, they know exactly what they are doing.
By the end of the 1960s, it was clear that front wheel drive was no fad. Even GM had started dabbling with it in, of all things, the 7 litre Oldsmobile Toronado. In Japan, Subaru had produced its 1000 in 1966, Honda the N360 in 1967 and Nissan the E10 Cherry in 1970. But Toyota waited. And waited. Finally, in 1978, Toyota revealed its toe-in-the-water exercise in front wheel drive, the Tercel. Naturally they had been biding their time, assessing the various forays into FWD by other manufacturers.
Would they follow the Issigonis route with a transverse engine and integrated gearbox, or Dante Giacosa’s more pragmatic method of transverse engine and gearbox in line, with unequal length driveshafts? Would they use Renault’s layout of a longitudinally mounted engine with a gearbox out front or maybe look at Citroen’s and Alfa’s flat 4 layouts? But, no, instead they had been looking closely at a near outsider, a car introduced 13 years before that had not even fulfilled its maker’s expectations.
The Triumph 1300 was introduced in 1965, joining its larger 2000 cousin as a well-appointed saloon. At this time, Leyland had not joined with BMC, so they were looking at the successful FWD Issigonis Mini and 1100 as competition, and wondering how to produce a credible alternative. One aim was to avoid the apparent complexity of the transverse layout of the BMC cars, which alienated cautious buyers. On the other hand, they sought to emulate the 1100’s praised handling. They therefore settled on a longitudinal layout with the engine ahead of the gearbox but, to minimise nose heaviness and overhang, the gearbox sat low, with the crownwheel beneath the sump and crankshaft, allowing the engine to sit a bit further back.
This resulted in a high bonnet line, and the car itself was quite high, though this had the effect of making it feel more like a small, traditional luxury saloon with a more commanding view than, say, a Vanden Plas 1100. With comfortable seats, great headroom and a decent driving position, the final car had definite virtues, though possibly with too much appeal to the conservative retiree when it might have been tapping into the quasi-egalitarian Sixties market.
Suspension was by semi trailing arms at the rear and double wishbones up front though, sadly but predictably, its image was somewhat tarnished by poor development engineering, particularly its front suspension. It sold adequately well, at around 140,000 over 5 years which, put into context, was a typical annual figure for BMC’s ADO16, and the bodyshell went on to a long, if retrograde, 15 year life, ending up as the rear driven Toledo, 1500TC and, finally, Dolomite, including the Championship winning Sprint.
So, in many ways it is odd that this is the car that Toyota chose as their inspiration, but it did. To some degree you can see why. The Triumph’s concept was sound enough. Even if the 1300 was never as agile as the BMC 1100, it offered less problematic solutions, especially if engineered by a company that didn’t have the slipshod development culture of the UK industry – up front, Toyota’s changing to Macpherson struts addressed one particular shortcoming of the 1300. It would also have appeared a less daunting proposition to mechanics in Toyota’s World market. There were other advantages; the second generation Tercel from 1982 featured the option of a four wheel drive version, with a straightforward drive to the rear taken off the back of the gearbox, Audi style.
But Toyota was careful not to burn any bridges with the Tercel. It was brought in as a new model, larger than the Starlet, but slightly smaller than the blessed Corolla. This latter model’s fourth generation was released in 1979, the year after the Tercel. Developed with a strict brief not to alienate its loyal customer base, the Corolla retained a live axle, but did at least make the technological leap from leaf to coil springs, combined with better axle location.
Produced in two, three and four door versions, and with a pleasantly compact look in notchback form at least, the Tercel was well received. Presumably encouraged by this, together with the fact that the US Big Three were all releasing mainstream front driven models, Toyota finally felt confident enough to engineer both the 1983 Corolla and the 1984 Starlet with front driven drivetrains.
But, much as it would be nice to point to modern day Toyotas and recognise a little bit of Triumph in their make up, these two espoused the new orthodoxy, with a transverse engine and side mounted gearbox, and Toyota have never looked back. In 1987, the third generation Tercel, confusingly known as Corolla II in Europe, also turned its engine through 90 degrees and the influence of Coventry was no more.